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12.06.2009

The Best Wines from Chile?: Tasting Notes for Wines over $40

chile_icons.jpgAs some of you know, I spent the last week traveling around Chile trying to get a sense of the country and its wines. It was my first trip there and I was quite excited to taste a lot of wine -- education by immersion, so to speak. With that in mind, my hosts for the week, the Wines of Chile organization, pulled together a tasting of what in Chile they refer to as "Icon Wines." These wines are usually the top wines in many wineries' portfolios, in some cases they are the only wines, and they generally retail for $40 or more.

The vast majority of Chilean wines, and by vast majority I mean literally 99.95% are priced under $40, meaning that these icon wines are a small, and relatively new development in Chilean wine. While some of the older, more established producers have sold an Icon wine for more than a decade, such as Concha y Toro's Don Melchor or Errázuriz's Don Maximiano, the existence of such wines represents something of a new chapter for the Chilean wine industry, which for the past three decades has really been focused on lower priced wines (though of increasing quality). Look for more thoughts later this week on the evolution of the Chilean wine industry.

In general these wines ranged from fairly good to excellent. While many are heavy-handed in their use of oak, the vast majority managed to stay away from cloying jamminess, and almost without exception the wines had excellent acidity and were generally medium-bodied, which made most of them extremely easy to drink.

Apart from the liberal use of oak, my main criticism of the wines as a group is that many of them, despite being very well well-made, and in some cases delicious, lacked a bit of soul -- some distinct personality that would better distinguish them from on another. My personal belief, based simply on my gut instinct and nothing more, is that many of these wines have had their souls filtered (and potentially acidified) out of them. Most were quite glassy in texture, which I tend to associate with heavy filtration, rightly or wrongly, and which produces an effect like an airbrushed photograph: a little too perfect.

As a result of this lack of deeper individuality some of their prices seemed unreasonable (and that is not taking into account the current economic conditions, which will doubtless make them an even tougher sell, at least in the American market).

Having said that, these wines, especially the better among them, show that Chile MUST be taken seriously when it comes to making high-end wines. While my visit proved that Chile continues to offer some of the world's best values when it comes to wine (more on this, too, later in the week) the top end of the market proves that with the right grapes, in the right place, and with serious attention to quality winemaking Chile clearly can produce some seriously world-class wines.

But let's get to the tasting notes. With the exception of the two whites present, most of these wines are Bordeaux blends, with a few single varietal Carmeneres, Cabernets, and Syrahs thrown in. Carmenere, of course, has become a signature grape variety for Chile, and in addition to the single varietal wines, it is present in many of the red blends noted below.

Notably absent from this tasting were the wines of Casa Lapostolle and Almaviva, both of which declined to send bottles to the tasting, as well as the wines of La Rosa, who did send wine but both bottles of which were badly corked. There are other wineries who are probably missing as well (at least one of which, Odjfell, I will review later in the week). This tasting did not represent a comprehensive set of Chilean wines over $40, merely a substantial amount of them.

The retail prices provided are the suggested retail prices from the wineries. In almost all cases, the wines can be found in the U.S. market at some level of discount, especially in today's economic times.

TASTING NOTES:

Notably absent from this tasting were the wines of Casa Lapostolle and Almaviva, both of which declined to send bottles to the tasting, as well as the wines of La Rosa, who did send wine but both bottles of which were badly corked.


WHITE WINES
2007 Maycas "Quebrada Seca" Chardonnay, Limarí Valley, Chile
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has an incredibly aromatic nose of cold cream, wet stones, and sweet lemon pastry cream. In the mouth it is stunning with amazing lemon curd and pink grapefruit flavors bouncing with great acidity. Wonderful notes of tangelo emerge on what the very lovely, long finish. Wow. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $50. Click to buy.

2009 Casas del Bosque "Gran Bosque" Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Nearly colorless in the glass with a light greenish hue, this wine has a nose of passionfruit and kiwi aromas. In the mouth it is beautifully crisp with lovely passionfruit and kiwi flavors, a great wet stone quality, and a very smooth texture. Gorgeous. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. Click to buy.

RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5

2005 Valdivieso "La Primavera" Red Blend, Sagrada Familia Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cherry, cut fresh herbs, and hints of gorgeous floral notes. In the mouth it is wonderfully light on the palate, thanks to perfect acidity and wonderful balance, with bright redcurrant and cherry flavors. Hints of fresh herbs emerge in the complex swirl of flavors, and exotic woods surface in the exceedingly long finish. Fantastic. $49. Click to buy.

2006 Valdivieso "La Primavera" Red Blend, Sagrada Familia Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a perfumed nose of bright cherry fruit, with lovely exotic wood overtones. In the mouth beautiful bright cherry flavors tinged with cedar and exotic spices swirl with juicy acidity and faint tannins to longer linger through a very long finish. $49. Click to buy.

2006 San Pedro "Cabo de Hornos" Red Blend, Curicó Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a lovely eucalyptus and cherry aroma filled nose. In the mouth it is juicy with cherry fruit, leathery tannins and the same light signature of eucalyptus found in the initial sniff. This menthol note lasts for a long time in the finish joined with hints of cocoa. $40. Click to buy.


RED WINES SCORING BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5

2004 Valdivieso "La Primavera" Red Blend, Sagrada Familia Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of red cherry fruit, and hint of green herbs or bell peppers -- enough to give personality but not to turn me off. In the mouth the wine offers intense cherry and cut herbs flavors. Great acidity and lovely soft tannins provide a nice backbone for the wine, and a long floral finish offers hints of sweet oak. $49. Click to buy.

2006 Terramater "Mater" Red Blend, Maipo Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of rich blackberry aromas with hints of black plum. In the mouth it is bright and juicy with cherry, cola, and a lightly mineral undertone. Silky as hell, the wine offers a wonderful lingering airy finish. Lovely. $80. Click to buy.

2006 Errázuriz Don Maximiano Bordeaux Blend, Aconcagua Valley, Chile
Dark ruby in color, this wine has a nose of rick blackberry and cassis aromas with a hint of raisins and exotic spices. In the mouth it is quite interesting, with an incredible camphor wood and incense quality, with dried cherries and raisins, and a long chocolatey finish. Lightly drying tannins and good acidity keep it from being too jammy, but the fruit is certainly on the drier side. Confounding on the one hand stunningly unique on the other. I like it an awful lot. $75. Click to buy.

2006 Cousiño Macul Lota Red Wine, Maipo Valley, Chile
Medium ruby in color, with hints of garnet, this wine smells of dried cherries and cedar. In the mouth it is rich and bright with cedar, cherry and spicy red pepper qualities, that translate to a little heat on the finish, but not enough to mar what is a very rich quality to the wine. Medium bodied with nice acidity and soft velvety tannins, this is a very well made wine. $75. Click to buy.


RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9

2006 Concha y Toro "Terrunyo" Carmenere, Peumo Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells beautifully of perfumed cassis and vanilla. In the mouth it is smooth, restrained, lovely, incredibly easy to drink, wonderful cassis, light, lithe on the tongue, hints of sandalwood. Beautiful. Lacks any hint of the greenness that often mars this grape variety. $40. Click to buy.

2006 Montgras Ninquen "Mountain Vineyard" Red Blend, Colchagua Valley, Chile
Medium purple in the glass, this wine has a nose of cherries, redcurrants, and a lovely floral quality. In the mouth it is soft, with lightly gripping tannins and nice acidity. Flavors of cherry, vanilla, and even strawberry emerge on the long finish. Missing something more complex, but overall a very nice wine. $45. Click to buy.

2003 Botalcura "Cayao" Red Blend, Central Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of dried cherries, black cherry, and well worn leather. In the mouth it is juicy, with dried redcurrant, cherry, and a hint of raspberry flavor. Great acidity makes it juicy, and light tannins bring in an earthiness that is quite nice. Aging quite well. $50. Click to buy.

2008 Casas del Bosque "Estate Selection" Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of pungent blackberry and black cherry fruit with a hint of mint and a hint of funk. In the mouth it is much lighter in body than the nose would suggest, with anise cherry and lightly minty quality in the body that lingers with light tannins in the finish. Could use some more substance, but delicious nonetheless. $40. Click to buy.

2006 Undurraga "Altazor" Red Blend, Maipo Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, with a nose of cherry, tobacco, and hints of wet earth aromas. In the mouth it is lithe, with bright cherry cola flavors, nice acidity, notes of vanilla on the finish. Not quite as complex as it could be, but a very pretty wine. $60. Click to buy.

2007 Los Vascos "Le Dix" Cabernet Sauvignon, Colchagua Valley, Chile
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of exotic woods, cherries, and hints of cassis. In the mouth it offers interesting exotic incense flavors mixed with bright cherry and hints of green herbs. Nice acidity and glassy textures prove this is a well made wine, but while tasty, it could be more interesting. $50. Click to buy.

2006 Morande "House of Morande" Red Blend, Maipo Valley, Chile
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry, plum, cola, and the barest hint of green bell pepper. In the mouth it is softly tannic, with flavors of cherry, wet earth, and nice wet redwood bark character that lingers in the finish. Good acidity makes this wine easy to drink, but it would be more exciting if it were a little more complex. $45. Click to buy.


RED WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9

2006 Miguel Torres "Conde de Superunda" Cabernet Sauvignon, Curicó Valley, Chile
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine has a nose of cassis, pencil lead, and ripe black cherries. In the mouth it is earthy, with cassis, black cherry, and aggressive tannins. Nice incense quality plus a surprising hint of wet dog in the finish -- not enough to be truly objectionable -- but definitely a surprise. $40

2006 Casas del Bosque "Pequeñas Producciones" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rapel Valley, Chile
Medium bright purple in the glass, this wine has a nose of rich cassis and blackberry jam. In the mouth it offers bright clear fruit -- blackberry and cassis but not much beyond this. Nice acidity makes for a juicy package but lacks some substance, especially on the back of the palate. Light tannins emerge in the finish. $50

2006 Casas del Bosque "Gran Bosque" Red Blend, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Medium to dark ruby in the glass with purple highlights, this wine has a nose of cherries and cranberry compote. In the mouth it offers bright cherry fruit, with hints of pomegranate and cranberry. Very light tannins grip at the edge of the palate, as the wine finishes with a beautiful clean fruit quality. Hints of green herbs at the front of the palate, but lacks some soul. $50

2006 Errázuriz "La Cumbre" Shiraz, Aconcagua Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of mulberries, farmyard, and briary blackberry. In the mouth it is smooth, with suede-like tannins and good acidity that wraps around an interesting concoction of dried cherries, cinnamon, dried currants, and an odd, hard-to-place floral quality. Comes across as slightly strange, with lavender on the finish. $75

2008 Casas del Bosque "Gran Bosque" Syrah, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of something quite unusual, which I'll call a cross between eucalyptus and cucumber, wrapped in a nice package of cassis fruit. In the mouth it is bright with juicy cassis and black cherry fruit, but all in the front of the palate. Missing the soul needed to turn this from delicious to profound. $40

2005 Millaman "Casa Millaman" Red Blend, Central Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright black cherry and cassis. In the mouth it is bright and fresh with cassis and black cherry flavors, but lacks some stuffing. Light tannins and good acidity, but missing something in the back of the palate. $60

2006 Ventisquero "Vértice" Red Blend, Colchagua Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a perfumed nose of cassis, cherries, and hibiscus. In the mouth it is juicy, with soft nearly imperceptible tannins, and a core of cherry fruit with hints of kirsch and pomegranate flavors on the finish. $40

2006 Concha y Toro "Don Melchor" Cabernet Sauvignon, Pte. Alto Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of barnyard and cherry aromas. In the mouth it also has a light funkiness that underlies bright cherry fruit wrapped in grippy tannins. Interesting because of the funk, but not nearly as exciting as it could be. $70


RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5

2006 Casa Silva "Microterroir" Carmenere, Colchagua Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of green alfalfa and black raspberries, with notes of dried cherries. In the mouth it is exceedingly velvety, with fine grained tannins, moderate acidity and flavors of leather, cherries (fresh and dried) and hints of green bell pepper and leather. The finish is long and aromatic, incense like. Somewhat top heavy, with not enough fresh fruit. $45

2006 Ventisquero "Pangea" Syrah, Colchagua Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherries, violets, and sweet oak. In the mouth it is bright blackberry dominated by sweet vanilla oak. Unfortunately this sweet oak flavor dominates the palate, leaving it high toned through the finish, with little chance for what is clearly good fruit to shine through. $50

2006 Luis Felipe Edwards "Doña Bernarda" Red Blend, Colchagua Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry, black cherry, and cedar. In the mouth it is high toned, with lightly grippy tannins, and good acidity, but slightly candied cassis and blackberry fruit that lingers, slightly warm, in the finish. $40

2008 San Esteban "Laguna del Inca" Red Blend, Aconcagua Valley, Chile
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and cherry cough syrup. In the mouth the wine is bright and very young, with leathery tannins, candied cherry flavors and light cedar notes, with sweet oak emerging on the finish. $40

2006 J. Bouchon "Mingre" Red Blend, Maule Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of flowers, cherries, and oiled wood. In the mouth it is juicy and bright with cherry and cassis fruit but very little to back it up in the way of substance. Sweet oak emerges on the finish. $40


RED WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8

2006 Los Boldos "Grand Cru" Red Blend, Rapel Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a nose of sweet, almost candied cherry, raspberry, and redcurrant aromas. If I didn't know better I would say I was smelling a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. In the mouth it is somewhat empty, with high toned cherry fruit, raspberry notes, but hollow on the mid-and back-palate. $55


NOT RATED:

2004 Miguel Torres Manso de Velasco Red Blend, Curicó Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cassis, raisins, and a funky barnyard quality that suggests some Brettanomyces. In the mouth it is funky, with cherry, and unfortunately lots of Brett mixed with sweet oak. Both bottles of this wine suffered from this problem. And the other bottles Torres wine above had a hint of it as well. I haven't tasted enough Torres wines to be able to draw any firm conclusions about the winery, but these four data points suggest a potential problem with Brett in the winery. $60

Comments (16)

Chris Robinson wrote:
12.06.09 at 7:05 PM

There it is, that recurrent criticism of Chilean wines yet again. These guys have the fruit and know-how to make wine, but they just all seem too "laboratory made". No edginess, no soul and frankly too similar to each other. Too much microx I wonder? Where are the terroirs here? Let's have a touch of VA to add some funkiness. Something's needed!!

12.06.09 at 10:37 PM

Is is just the deflation of the US dollar - I'm recalling from our 2007 visit that the premium wines were closer to $30 tange which made them a lot more interesting to us.

james wrote:
12.07.09 at 10:20 AM

I love this site and as someone who fancies himself an amateur wine expert, I happen to love Chilean wines. I think Chile rivals California as the greatest wine producing region of the Americas (and their shaped similarly, coincidence?)

tom hyland wrote:
12.07.09 at 10:32 AM

Alder:

Nice article with thorough notes. I have also had some upper tier reds from Chile that are too oaky and fruit-forward in their approach - modern winemaking gone bad - but I'd have to say that most of the top wines I've tried haven't been like that.

I'm assuming you reported on everything you sampled in this tasting, so it's a shame that you didn't try the Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Rita as well as the Gold Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Carmen. Both are from very old vines (40-70 years of age) in the Alto Maipo and both have tremendous structure as well as beautifully integrated oak. These wines are among the best I've had that express their local terroir and speak to what Maipo Valley is all about.

Liz Caskey wrote:
12.07.09 at 2:28 PM

Alder,

Nice post; great information and thorough notes.

Too bad you didn't get in touch while in town! I think part of the soul-less problem could also lend itself to the fact many of these wines were coming from fairly large players in the industry. It would have been interesting to contrast these with some of the boutique guys in the same range like: Domus Aurea, Aquitania, Antiyal, El Principal, Altair, Matetic, Amayna, Loma Larga, Neyen, Calyptra, Erasmo, Gillmore, list goes on and on. I think there is where you get the wines with tons of personality (most of the above-mentioned places do no more than 3-5K cases/year). Next time!! If you come, I will be glad to organize a tasting for you with this profile of wineries. All the best, Liz

Alder wrote:
12.07.09 at 2:51 PM

Liz,

Stay tuned for a tasting of smaller players that included Gillmore and Erasmo. I've tasted a couple Matetic wines and they have been great. Not sure if Amayna and Altair (both of which I have had) really qualify as small players, as they are both made by heavily funded wineries (Altair used to be a joint venture with the Dassault group, and Garces Silva is quite a large operation), as were many in this tasting.

I visited both Garces Silva and Altair on this trip.

Alder

scott wrote:
12.07.09 at 3:16 PM

Alder – not to get side tracked by your Chilean subject, but what do you mean by “glassy texture”? Can you provide more descriptors? I think I know what you mean because I’ve tasted many better wines that have that textural quality of glassiness. I didn’t call it glassy until I heard you say it, but that term fits for what I’ve experienced. The wines that I’m talking about were decent or even good, but I suspected or knew firsthand they were heavily manipulated in the winery (filtering, acidifying, and more).

Alder wrote:
12.07.09 at 3:25 PM

Scott,

Hard to describe -- like liquid glass in the mouth. VERY smooth, polished, and not with the viscosity that comes with silky or satiny texture but something more... glassy. Sorry. The complete opposite of glassy is grainy or powdery where the liquid has a texture due to micro sediments in suspension. You can feel them on your tongue.

Clear as mud?

Anonymous wrote:
12.07.09 at 4:54 PM

Bretts are a trademark of Manso de Velasco, but for me this is an exception in Chile where clean winemaking is the rule. I think this is a good thing, because it allows for the true expression of terroir. The softness of tannins is one aspect of this terroir, and because of that, many thinks that Chilean reds are not age-worthy, which is a big mistake. With time, these wines, even some inexpensive ones, are developing nice complexity with good oak integration. After ten years in the bottle, a good Maipo Cab can be easily mistaken in blind tasting for a good and well aged Bordeaux. Also, for me, Syrah and Malbec are two grapes with very good results in Chile, in warmer and cooler climate. I agree with many names given by Liz, but I would add

Emiliana (COYAM)
Perez Cruz
Haras de Pirque
Chocalan
Veranda
Tabali
De Martino

tom hyland wrote:
12.07.09 at 5:41 PM

"The complete opposite of glassy is grainy or powdery where the liquid has a texture due to micro sediments in suspension. You can feel them on your tongue."

Alder, I enjoy your tasting notes, but stuff like this is a bit precious. You actually lost me here. I wonder how many other people are confused by this description as well.

Always best to keep it simple! Sorry, but I gotta keep it real here.

Alder wrote:
12.07.09 at 5:45 PM

Tom, you asked me to explain what is essentially a metaphor for a feeling. The equivalent of asking me what an orange tastes like or what velvet feels like. It was gonna get ugly no matter what.

Allen Clark wrote:
12.08.09 at 6:33 AM

Alder, you have the Vina Errazuriz wine as "Don Maximiano". Confusingly, the cab blend is actually the Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve, apparently to differentiate it from the Don Maximiano Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Don Maximiano syrah and the carmenere. Also (starting to sound like Monty Python here), not to be confused with the entire Max Reserva line.

Jen wrote:
12.08.09 at 8:10 AM

Ha--Allen, you nailed it with the Errazuriz confusion. And of course, the Don Max Founder's Reserve is not their top wine--Seña is.

Alder, as others have said, many wines are missing from your list, and I would not personally include many of the wineries you listed as top Chilean wineries. Liz's list looks much more interesting, and if you drop into the $20–40 range, it gets more interesting still. I'm looking forward to your notes on Gillmore and Erasmo, which are fellow members of the Movi group. Some interesting developments are underway outside of Wines of Chile.

scott wrote:
12.08.09 at 8:39 AM

Thanks Alder. That is pretty much what I had in mind for glassy, as well.

Alder wrote:
12.08.09 at 8:52 AM

Errazuriz is confusing because the estate itself is called Don Maximiano, so all wines that come from the estate get that name in addition to whatever other name the wine gets.

Jen, you are incorrect. Seña is not the top wine of Errazuriz, it is a completely separate brand. Errazuriz's top wines are KAI, Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve and Cumbre.

Jen wrote:
12.08.09 at 9:33 AM

Right, different brand, but the same winemaker and the same winery.

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